National Gallery of Art/Metropolitan Museum of Art/Royal Academy of Arts/Prestel, 335 pp.,$60.00; $40.00 (paper)
Within a year of George Bellows’ s sudden death, in 1925, at age forty-two—from complications from a ruptured appendix—Sherwood Anderson, writing in Vanity Fair, put his finger on a salient quality of the realist painter’s work. Looking at some of the artist’s last pictures, which were large and vaguely anachronistic double portraits, Anderson implied that the point Bellows was making with them wasn’t altogether clear, but had he lived, and gone on to other pictures, their meaning in the larger scheme of all his work might have become apparent. He concluded that the paintings were saying that “Mr. George Bellows died too young. They are telling you that he was after something, that he was always after it.”
Anderson’s quote, which appears on a wall label toward the end of the current Bellows retrospective, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, perfectly captures what viewers, taking in the artist’s justly acclaimed early scenes of a gritty and dynamic New York in the years around 1910—and his more purely artful later explorations of many different genres—may feel: that there was a remarkable restlessness, drive, and desire to experiment in Bellows. Anderson’s leaving unsaid what the painter was going after hits home as well. For in Bellows’s art one finds, especially in his early pictures, which are among the most beautiful made by an American, that his subject is elusive. It seems to be simply (or not so simply) an exuberance in being alive.
Bellows is most associated with the brushy and lustrous realist painting, with its feeling for public life—for surging crowds and commotion-packed doings in densely populated tenement streets—that held sway in New York in the years before World War I. Not long after he came to the city, in 1904, at twenty-two, from Columbus, Ohio (where he left Ohio State before graduating), Bellows became a student at the New York School of Art. There the tall, well-built, sociable, and brainy young man, who, back home, had excelled in a number of sports and played semipro baseball, was soon under the spell of Robert Henri, who essentially created the idea of an American realist art.
Stronger as a teacher and writer than a painter, Henri had a genius for getting beginning artists to believe in themselves. (His catalytic power, which owes a lot, I believe, to Emerson essays such as “The Poet” and “Self-Reliance,” can be felt in passages throughout The Art Spirit, his 1923 collection of class talks and articles.) Henri urged his friends and followers, including John Sloan and George Luks, and his students (among whom Bellows became the star), to take as their subject life as they encountered it, no matter how inartistic it might seem at first. It was Henri who got American painters to make pictures about barbershops, gatherings in Central Park, the city’s new immigrant communities, or dust storms on Fifth Avenue.
Bellows followed through with, most famously, his 1909 boxing pictures Stag at Sharkey’s (which is in the Met’s exhibition) and Both Members of This Club. Showing bloodied and thrusting, angular bodies in theatrically darkened settings, these visceral and large-size pictures, where we cannot quite make out the faces of the boxers but see the coarse and grinning faces of the audience members, have long felt like signposts in our national history. They seem to epitomize an era when a degree of brute, barely regulated force colored many aspects of American life.
Along with other New York paintings and drawings that he was making at this time—whether of boys fighting on tenement streets or the hubbub of an election night in Times Square—Bellows’s boxing pictures, at the very least, have a breadth and a sense of daring that no other American realist, or naturalist, art can match. It was Bellows, moreover, who, inadvertantly, was responsible for these New York artists being labeled the Ashcan School. It happened when a published drawing of his of hoboes appraising pickings from a trash bin was remarked on by a cartoonist out to make a derogatory point—though surely the thought of there being an Ashcan School, and the very sound of the words, make for one of the funnier and sweeter names attached to any group of American artists.
Yet Bellows, like Edward Hopper, his friend, exact contemporary, and classmate at the New York School of Art—and like the younger Stuart Davis, who joined the school after Bellows left—had work he wanted to go on to after the ashcan days had run their course. And this Bellows, like Hopper and Davis, was an artist who, while attached to American subject matter, insisted on a highly-structured, or keenly formal, underpinning for those subjects. Hopper bolstered his American vistas with a feeling for a geometric clarity and severity, while Davis draped American themes on Cubism’s scaffolding.
Bellows, in turn, as scholars in recent years have made clear, was almost in thrall to color theories and principles of pictorial organization, such as the golden section, where elements in a picture (trees, perhaps, or buildings) are placed to give the entire scene an inner balance and tension. This concern for a universal or mathematical order manifested itself in his life as well as his art. The lines of the vacation house he would eventually build for his family in Woodstock, in 1922, for example, presumably hew to the concept of Dynamic Symmetry, an idea developed by Jay Hambidge, one of a number of theorists whose thinking Bellows followed. How noticeable Bellows’s underlying compositional schemes are for viewers is another matter. These strategies don’t exactly jump out at you.
Especially in the Woodstock-area landscapes from his later years, though (which are unfortunately underrepresented in this show), Bellows’s color and design sense can have a peacocky flamboyance, making for pictures that, intriguingly, seem equally to be visions and confections. And the fact that there is a world of measurement and color theory buried in Bellows’s pictures may help account for the increased interest in his work on the part of scholars and curators in recent years. It possibly helps explain why three major institutions wanted to do the enormous present show, even though there was a substantial exhibition, if only of Bellows’s paintings, as recently as 1992. (It was organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, and traveled to the Whitney.)
For many of the writers contributing to the catalogs of that show and of the current retrospective, Bellows’s involvement with various pictorial systems is of a piece with other overlooked aspects of his approach: his generally doing many painted versions of a given image, his often rethinking an image in drawings and lithographs, and his awareness of old master paintings. According to Franklin Kelly, the deputy director and chief curator of the National Gallery and the person who got the current show underway, it is important to note that Bellows was a “methodical” artist even in the celebrated early days of his career (when he was presumably thought to have been a more purely “spontaneous” creator). Methodical would certainly describe the way, when he was covering New York as an acolyte of Henri, he produced a number of similar boxing pictures, or a handful of related pictures of the excavation that led to the building of Penn Station.
A great deal of studiousness and industry is unquestionably evident in Bellows’s subsequently immersing himself, during his last fifteen or so years, in seascapes, portraits, landscapes, and such topics in contemporary life as tennis matches at Newport, the evangelist Billy Sunday, civilian casualties in World War I, and the Dempsey–Firpo bout of 1923. For Charles Brock, also a National Gallery curator and the chief organizer of the present exhibition, Bellows, in his involvement in so many aspects of his time, and in his almost detached way of treating them, is more than the bright light of American realism. He is a grander, if less clearcut, figure than that. Kelly suggests that, in his bringing together of the “banal and grand, and the everyday and the timeless,” he is even a version of the “painter of modern life” that Baudelaire wrote about. In the exhibition’s view, Bellows is both a traditional and a modern artist, and one whose significance becomes more apparent when his entire, though tragically truncated, career is accounted for.
In the years after his death, however, it was Bellows’s early New York pictures that mattered. His formal concerns were not an issue and his later work was lost sight of. My own view, as I have been suggesting, is that this judgment is still sound. Viewers who missed the 1992 show, or have never seen many of Bellows’s early pictures in one place, may be surprised by how luscious and delicate, as well as muscular, a painter he was when he was starting out. His choice of themes was undoubtedly spurred by Henri; and surely there is something disjointed in the way he jumped from recording the faces and doings of young people he knew or saw in the streets to boxing scenes, and went on to images of Manhattan construction sites and waterfronts. Yet helped along by the boldness and variety of his brushwork and his sometimes brassily sharp color, he gives us, even with his few and disparate themes, a lived-in, breathing sense of New York at that time.
When Bellows left Columbus he took with him the skills, which he had been working on since grade school, and honed at Ohio State, of a caricaturist and illustrator. In New York he was working with oils on canvas in a serious way for the first time, and the excitement of paintings such as River Rats, Beach at Coney Island, Kids, and Forty-two Kids (which all date from 1906 to 1908) comes in part from watching a practiced draftsman (with a huge ego) commandeer a new and very different art form.
In these wonderful paintings of boys and girls skirmishing in the dusk in an alley, or making out on a crowded beach—or standing with clenched fists and bawling, or taking it all in philosophically, a cigarette dangling from this or that mouth—we are responding to a cartoonist who is used to fashioning images with speedy abbreviations encountering the sluggish medium of oil paint. The resulting pictures are especially engaging when seen close up, because faces, limbs, and hats all seem to have been formed in dashing new ways.
Forty-two Kids, an East River scene where our mostly naked or stripping heroes are busy jumping in the water—or studying one another, or contemplating their penises, or lying on their backs and smoking—is the most extraordinary of Bellows’s group pictures of young people. Showing these many little, bright bodies clambering over a shambles of a grayed pier, which is set against a very dark East River, the painting, it dawns on a viewer, is a feat of design and planning. It is a picture that can be looked at and savored, if only for the body positions Bellows has devised, for a long time.
What Forty-two Kids is about, other than portraying a moment, is hard to say. Viewers may find themselves thinking of Eakins’s celebrated painting Swimming (1884–1885), where a number of adult naked male swimmers are seen at a distance and are as poised and elegant as figures in classical Greek art. Eakins didn’t say this, but his painting, we can feel, is somehow about yearning. It seems as sad as it is exquisite, and its presence in our minds as we take in Forty-two Kids reinforces our sense that Bellows’s picture, beginning with its lean, plainspoken title, is like an opera without a libretto. It is a picture with no graspable psychology, which isn’t to say that it is less a work than Swimming.
Bellows’s views of the Hudson or the Battery on bright winter days after heavy snows, or Riverside Drive or the East River on cloudier days, similarly stymie us as we try to account for their power. With smoke, trees, snow, shadows, stonework, sunlight, and water all rendered with a sparkling velocity, the subject of the pictures might be energy in itself. Viewers who have a sense of these sites may feel, standing before paintings that are generally around four feet wide, that they want to walk right in.